Roland pledges his fealty to Charlemagne; from a manuscript of a chanson de geste.
Feudalism refers to a general set of reciprocal legal and military obligations among the warrior nobility of Europe during the Middle Ages, revolving around the three key concepts of lords, vassals, and fiefs.
However, defining feudalism requires many qualifiers because there is no broadly accepted agreement of what it means. In order to begin to understand feudalism, a working definition is desirable. The definition described in this article is the most senior and classic definition and is still subscribed to by many historians.
Other definitions of feudalism exist. Since at least the 1960s many medieval historians have included a broader social aspect, adding the peasantry bonds of Manorialism, referred to as a "feudal society". Still others since the 1970s have re-examined the evidence and concluded feudalism is an unworkable term and should be removed entirely from scholarly and educational discussion (see Revolt against the term feudalism), or at least only used with severe qualification and warning. Use of the term outside of a European context is done only by analogy, sometimes applied to one or two other societies: Japan of the shoguns, and, possibly, nineteenth-century Ethiopia. Yet still others have taken this analogy of feudalism and expanded on it even further, seeing it everywhere from ancient Egypt, India, to the American South in the nineteenth century. 
The word "feudalism" was invented in the seventeenth century, based on the Late Latinfeudum, which was borrowed from Germanic*fehu, a commonly used term in the Middle Ages which meant fief or land held under certain obligations by feodati. Even though the word components are from the Middle Ages, the concept of feudalism was not invented until the seventeenth century, the modern era.
2.3.3Marc Bloch and sociological view of feudalism
2.3.4Revolt against the term feudalism
3Notes on feudalism
3.1Origins of feudalism
3.2Decline of feudalism
3.3Did feudalism exist?
3.4Cautions on use of term Feudalism
3.5Extrapolations of the meaning of feudalism
3.6Other feudal-like systems
What is feudalism?
see also Feudal society and Feudalism (examples)
Three elements existed and characterize the period: lords, vassals and fiefs. Feudalism is defined by how these three elements fit together.
A lord was a noble who owned land. A vassal was a person who was loaned land by the lord. The land was known as a fief. In exchange for the fief, the vassal would provide military service to the lord. The obligations and relations between lord, vassal and fief form the basis of feudalism.
Lords, vassals and fiefs
Before a lord could grant land, or fief, to someone, he had to make that person a vassal. This was done at a formal and symbolic ceremony called a commendation ceremony comprised of the two-part act of homage and oath of fealty. In homage, the vassal would promise to fight for the lord at his command. Oath of fealty comes from the Latin fidelitas, or faithfulness, which means that the vassal will remain faithful to the lord. Once the commendation was complete, the lord and vassal were now in a feudal relationship with agreed-upon mutual obligations to one another.
The lord foremost was obligated to grant a fief or its revenues to the vassal; the fief is the primary reason the vassal chose to enter into the relationship. In addition, the lord sometimes had to fulfill other obligations to the vassal and fief. One of those obligations was its maintenance. Since the lord had not given the land away, only loaned it, it was still the lord's responsibility to maintain the land, while the vassal had the right to collect revenues generated from it. Another obligation that the lord had to fulfill was to protect the land and the vassal from harm.
The vassal, in turn, had two obligations to the lord. First and most importantly, he had to provide "aid", or military service. Using whatever equipment the vassal could obtain by virtue of the revenues from the fief, the vassal was responsible to answer to calls to military service on behalf of the lord. This security of military help was, in fact, the primary reason the lord entered into the feudal relationship. The vassal also had to provide the lord with "counsel". If the lord faced a major decision, such as whether or not to go to war, he would summon all his vassals and hold a council.
The land-holding relationships of feudalism revolved around the fief. Depending on the power of the granting lord, grants could range in size from a small farm to a much larger area of land. The size of fiefs was described in irregular terms quite different from modern area terms; see medieval land terms. The lord-vassal relationship was not restricted to members of the laity; bishops and abbots, for example, were also capable of acting as lords.
Examples of feudalism
see main article Feudalism examples
Examples of feudalism are helpful to understand fully feudalism and feudal society. Feudalism was practiced in many different ways, depending on location and time period, and thus a high-level encompassing conceptual definition does not always provide a reader with the intimate understanding that historical examples can show.
History of the term "feudalism"
In order to better understand what the term feudalism means, it is helpful to see how it was defined and how it has been used since its seventeenth century creation.
Invention of feudalism
The word feudalism was not a medieval term. It was invented by French and English lawyers in the 17th century to describe certain traditional obligations between members of the warrior aristocracy. The term first reached a popular and wide audience in Montesquieu's De L'Esprit des Lois (The Spirit of the Laws) in 1748. Since then it has been redefined and used by many different people in different ways.
"Feudalism" in history
The term feudalism has been used by different political philosophers and thinkers throughout history.
Enlightenment thinkers on feudalism
Starting in the late 18th century during the French revolution, radicals wrote about feudalism to tar the antiquated system of the Ancien Régime, or French monarchy. This was the Age of Enlightenment when reason was king and radicals were painting the Middle Ages as the "Dark Ages". Enlightenment authors generally mocked and ridiculed anything from the "Dark Ages" including Feudalism, projecting its negative characteristics on the current French monarchy as a means of political gain.
Karl Marx on feudalism
Like the French revolutionaries, Karl Marx also used the term feudalism for political ends. In the nineteenth century Marx described feudalism as the economic situation coming before the inevitable rise of capitalism. For Marx, what defined feudalism was that the power of the ruling class (the aristocracy) rested on their control of the farmable lands, leading to a class society based upon the exploitation of the peasants who farm these lands, typically under serfdom. “The hand-mill gives you society with the feudal lord; the steam-mill society with the industrial capitalist.” (The Poverty of Philosophy (1847), chapter 2). This was the definition of feudalism to Marx, a purely economic model.
Historians on feudalism
The term feudalism is, among medieval historians, one of the most widely debated concepts. There exist many definitions of feudalism and indeed some have revolted against it, saying the term should not be used at all.
Origins of English feudalism are debated
In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century historians John Horace Round and Frederic William Maitland, who focused on medieval Britain, arrived at different conclusions as to the character of English society prior to the start of Norman rule in 1066, the former arguing for a Norman import of feudalism and the latter contending that the fundamentals were already in place in Britain — a debate which continues to this day.
Ganshof and classic view of feudalism
A historian whose concept of feudalism remains highly influential in the 20th century is François-Louis Ganshof, who belongs to a pre-Second World War generation. He defines feudalism on very narrow legal and military perspective, arguing that feudal relationships existed only within the medieval nobility itself. Ganshof articulted this concept in Francois-Lois Ganshof, Feudalism (Trans. Philip Grierson; New York: Harper & Row, 1964). It is Ganshof's classic definition of feudalism that is the most widely known today and also the easiest to understand. Simply, when a lord granted a fief to a vassal, the vassal provided military service in return.
Marc Bloch and sociological view of feudalism
One of Ganshof's contemporaries, a French historian named Marc Bloch, is arguably the most influential medieval historian of the twentieth century. He approached feudalism not so much from a legal and military point of view but from a sociological one. He developed his ideas in his book Feudal Society (Trans. L.A. Manyon; 2 volumes; Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1961; ISBN 0226059790). Marc Bloch did not conceive of feudalism as being limited solely to nobility, but as a type of society. Like Ganshof, he recognized that there was a hierarchal relationship between lords and vassals, but saw as well a similar relationship obtaining between lords and peasants. This radical notion that peasants are part of the feudal relationship sets Bloch apart from his peers. While the vassal performed military service in exchange for the fief, the peasant performed physical labour in return for protection. Both are a form of feudal relationship. According to Bloch, other elements of society can be seen in feudal terms; all the aspects of life were centered on "lordship", and so we can speak usefully of a feudal church structure, a feudal courtly (and anti-courtly) literature, a feudal economy. See Feudal society.
More recently there has been a revolt by some historians regarding the use of the term feudalism, with some arguing that the term should not be used at all.
Revolt against the term feudalism
In 1974, U.S. historian Elizabeth A.R. Brown, in "The Tyranny of a Construct: Feudalism and Historians of Medieval Europe" (American Historical Review 79), challenged the value of using the word at all, rejecting the label as an anachronistic construct which imparted a false sense of uniformity to the concept. She noted that with so many different, contradictory feudalism definitions circulating that, in the absence of any accepted definition, feudalism is a construct with no basis in medieval reality, an invention of modern historians read back "tyrannically" into the historical record. Supporters of Brown have gone so far as to suggest that the term should be expunged from history textbooks and lectures on medieval history entirely. In Fiefs and Vassals: The Medieval Evidence Reinterpreted, Susan Reynolds expanded upon Brown's original thesis. Although some of her contemporaries questioned Reynolds' methodology, her thesis has received support from certain historians. Note that Reynolds does not object to the Marxist use of 'feudalism'.
Notes on feudalism
Origins of feudalism
Vassalage agreements similar to what would later develop into legalized medieval feudalism originated from the blending of ancient Roman and Germanic traditions. The Romans had a custom of patronage whereby a stronger patron would provide protection to a weaker client in exchange for gifts, political support and prestige. In the countryside of the later Empire, the reforms of Diocletian and his successors attempted to put certain jobs, notably farming, on an hereditary basis. As governmental authority declined and rural lawlessness (such as that of the Bagaudae) increased, these farmers were increasingly forced to rely upon the protection of the local landowner, and a nexus of interdependency was created: the landowners depended upon the peasants for labour, and the peasants upon the landowners for protection.
Germans had a custom of equality among warriors, an elected leader who kept the majority of the wealth (land) and who distributed it to members of the group in return for loyalty.
Decline of feudalism
Feudalism had begun as a contract, the exchange of land tenure for military service. Over time, as lords could no longer provide new lands to their vassals, nor enforce their right to reassign lands which had become 'de facto' hereditary property, feudalism became less tenable as a working relationship. By the thirteenth century Europe's economy was involved in a transformation from a mostly agrarian system to one that was increasingly money-based and mixed. Land ownership was still an important source of income, and still defined social status, but even wealthy nobles wanted more liquid assets, whether for luxury goods or to provide for wars. This corruption of the form is often referred to as "bastard feudalism". A noble vassal was expected to deal with most local issues and could not always expect help from a distant king. The nobles were independent and often unwilling to cooperate for a greater cause (military service). By the end of the Middle Ages, the kings sought a way to become independent of willful nobles, especially for military support. The kings first hired mercenaries and later created standing national armies.
Historian J. J. Bagley noted that the fourteenth century "marked the end of the true feudal age and began paving the way for strong monarchies, nation states, and national wars of the sixteenth century. Much fourteenth century feudalism had become artificial and self-conscious. Already men were finding it a little curious. It was acquiring an antiquarian interest and losing its usefulness. It was ceasing to belong to the real world of practical living."
Did feudalism exist?
The following are historic examples that call into question the traditional use of the term feudalism.
Extant sources reveal that the early Carolingians had vassals, as did other leading men in the kingdom. This relationship did become more and more standardized over the next two centuries, but there were differences in function and practice in different locations. For example, in the German kingdoms that replaced the kingdom of Eastern Francia, as well as in some Slavic kingdoms, the feudal relationship was arguably more closely tied to the rise of Serfdom, a system that tied peasants to the land (for more on this see the works of Leonard Blum on the history of serfdom).
Moreover, the evolution of the Holy Roman Empire greatly affected the history of the feudal relationship in central Europe. If one follows long-accepted feudalism models, one might believe that there was a clear hierarchy from Emperor to lesser rulers, be they kings, dukes, princes, or margraves. These models are patently untrue: the Holy Roman Emperor was elected by a group of seven magnates, three of whom were princes of the church, who in theory could not swear allegiance to any secular lord.
The French kingdoms also seem to provide clear proof that the models are accurate, until we take into consideration the fact that, when Hrolf or Rollo the Ganger kneeled to pay homage to Charles the Simple in return for the Duchy of Normandy, accounts tell us that he knocked the king on his rump as he rose, demonstrating his view that the bond was only as strong as the lord -- in this case, not strong at all.
The autonomy with which the Normans ruled their duchy supports the view that, despite any legal "feudal" relationship, the Normans did as they pleased. In the case of their own leadership, however, the Normans utilized the feudal relationship to bind their followers to them. It was the influence of the Norman invaders which strengthened and to some extent institutionalized the feudal relationship in England after the Norman Conquest.
Since we do not use the medieval term vassalage how are we to use the term feudalism? Though it is sometimes used indiscriminately to encompass all reciprocal obligations of support and loyalty in the place of unconditional tenure of position, jurisdiction or land, the term is restricted by most historians to the exchange of specifically voluntary and personal undertakings, to the exclusion of involuntary obligations attached to tenure of "unfree" land: the latter are considered to be rather an aspect of Manorialism, an element of Feudal society but not of feudalism proper.
Cautions on use of term Feudalism
"Feudalism" and related terms should be approached and used with considerable caution owing to the range of meanings associated with the term. A cautious historian like Fernand Braudel sets "feudalism" in quotes in applying it in wider social and economic contexts, such as "the seventeenth century, when much of America was being 'feudalized' as the great haciendas appeared." (in The Perspective of the World, 1984, p. 403).
Medieval societies never described themselves as "feudal". Though used in popular parlance to represent all voluntary or customary bonds in medieval society, or a social order in which civil and military power is exercised under private contractual arrangements, the term is best considered appropriate only to the voluntary, personal undertakings binding lords and free men to protection in return for support which characterised the administrative and military order.
Extrapolations of the meaning of feudalism
One example of this exists in the People's Republic of China. The official view of history there being based on Marxism, attempts to fit the Chinese in Marxist historical periods and hence defines Chinese history from the Zhou Dynasty to the Qing Dynasty as part of the feudal period. In order to do this, new concepts had to be invented such as bureaucratic feudalism which most Western historians would consider a contradiction in terms.
As a result of this Marxist definition, feudal, as used in a Chinese context is very commonly used as a pejorative term meaning old and unscientific, and this usage is also common among both academic and popular writers from Mainland China, even those who are anti-Marxist. The use of the term feudal to describe a period in Chinese history was common among Western historians of China of the 1950s and 1960s, but became increasingly uncommon after the 1970s, and the prevailing consensus among Western historians is that using the term feudal to describe Chinese history confuses more than it clarifies as it assumes strong commonalities between Chinese and European history that may not exist.
Other feudal-like systems
Other feudal-like land tenure systems have existed, and continue to exist, in different parts of the world.
See Feudalism (examples)
Note 1: Philip Daileader (2001). "Feudalism". The High Middle Ages. The Teaching Company. ISBN 1565858271
Paul Halsall, "Feudalism?" from the Internet Medieval Sourcebook, history of the term.
Marc Bloch, Feudal Society. Tr. L.A. Manyon. Two volumes. Chicago : University of Chicago Press, 1961 ISBN 0226059790
Francois-Lois Ganshof, Feudalism. Tr Philip Grierson. New York: Harper and Row, 1964.
Jean-Pierre Poly and Eric Bournazel, The Feudal Transformation, 900-1200., Tr. Caroline Higgitt. New York and London: Holmes and Meier, 1991.
Susan Reynolds, Fiefs and Vassals: The Medieval Evidence Reinterpreted. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994 ISBN 0198206488
Normon E. Cantor. Inventing the Middle Ages: The Lives, Works, and Ideas of the Great Medievalists of the Twentieth century. Quill, 1991.
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The term Indian feudalism is an attempt to classify Indian history according to a European model. Historians have become very reluctant to classify other societies into European models and today it is rare for Indian history to be described as feudal by academics; it still done in popular usage, however, but only for pejorative reasons to express disfavour, typically by critics. These include zamindar, jagir, desmukh, chowdhury. Most of these "systems" were abolished after the Independence of India and the rest of the Subcontinent, but some still exist, officially or in its remnants.
The usefulness of feudalism as a term is at present under intense discussion among historians of the middle ages, with the majority of experts now rejecting the term.
Feudalism was not a word used in the middle ages. It has had two quite distinct meanings in recent usage. The first meaning - promoted by radicals during the French Revolution and developped by Marxist historians - refers to a social system based on a society in which peasant agriculture is the fundamental productive activity; in which slavery is non-existent or marginal but peasants are tied to the land in some way; and in which a small elite defined by military activity dominates.. This is probably the most important meaning in modern popular usuage.
For most of the 20th-century, professional medievalists have given the term a quite different meaning [see F. Ganshof, Feudalism for a classic summary]. For medieval historians the term has come to mean a system of reciprocal personal relations among members of the military elite, which lead ultimately to parliament and then Western democracy. For modern historians, the older "Lord and peasant" model was subsumed in the concept of manoralism. It is not clear if this near consensus among Medievalists ever really made it on to the larger stage of common culture, or even to other departments within a university (or even to non-medievalists within a history department)!
Building on work of Elizabeth Brown, the historian Susan Reynolds, in her Fiefs and Vassals, systematically attacked the basis of the professional medievalists' version of feudalism [although she did not tackle the older social and economic, or Marxist, model]. Reynolds argued that recent historians had been too ready to read back 11th- and 12th-century legal texts (which do use feudal) terminology onto a much more variated 9th- and 10th century society and had ended up creating a "feudal world" which simply did note exist, or which, at most, described small parts of France for short periods.
Most reviewers have found Reynold's arguments compelling. [See, for instance, the very informative comments of Steven Lane: Review of Susan Reynolds, Fief and Vassals, [At TMR]. As a result teachers can no longer teach "feudalism" without severe qualifications.
The texts here have traditionally been used to explain the "feudal system". They may be better read and discussed, perhaps, as examples of how people created a variety a social and personal bonds in a society with few stable and accessible legal or governmental authorities. They do not represent a "system".